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Southern comfort for Congress

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on April 26, 2019 Published on April 26, 2019

Look who’s here: Rahul Gandhi’s Wayanad candidature will help banish the long-held notion that the Congress is a North-based party   -  The Hindu

Will Rahul Gandhi’s electoral entry in Kerala mark a shift in the Grand Old Party’s political strategy?

Wayanad has voted. But certain images from the campaign have endured, while others have morphed into memes. One such meme started doing the rounds hours after Congress president Rahul Gandhi, with sister Priyanka Vadra, kick-started his campaign in the district.

The meme combines two photographs of Vadra. In one, she addresses an election rally, ostensibly in Amethi — Gandhi’s traditional constituency in Uttar Pradesh — and the other is from a campaign in Wayanad, Kerala. She is clad in a red sari in both, but the accessories are strikingly different. In the picture from Amethi, she wears a rudraksha neckpiece, a tilak on the forehead and sacred threads around her wrist. In the image from Wayanad, the neckpiece and tilak are missing, while a black-strap watch adorns her wrist.

The meme, made presumably for propaganda, reflects a turn that Gandhi and his party may have taken.

“The party Gandhi and Priyanka represent in Kerala is different from the one they have inherited,” says Muneer Valappil, a communications expert and Congress sympathiser from Kozhikode. “Kerala, especially Wayanad, offers the party an opportunity to look and feel different, and Rahul seems to have understood that,” Valappil points out.

Gandhi’s decision to fight the ongoing Lok Sabha polls from both Wayanad and Amethi underlines a shift in the party’s political strategy. Political observers in the state believe the move will help the Congress, and make it more popular down South. Doing so would also mean bidding adieu to the long-held notion that the Congress is a North-based party. Further, it could be seen as Gandhi weaning himself out of a legacy, for Amethi is a pocket borough earlier represented by his mother, father and uncle.

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Wayanad offers Gandhi and the Congress an opportunity to shed their North India-centric character and identify more with the South, says Shiju Joseph, psychologist and political commentator in Thiruvananthapuram.

The constituency went to polls on April 23 and there is a general consensus that Gandhi will win from Wayanad. “When it comes to Rahul’s win, it is just a question of the margin of victory,” says Namitha Thomas, a 28-year-old bank employee from Mananthavady.

Wayanad, of course, is traditionally a Congress stronghold. But this time, she believes, politically neutral voters and even sympathisers of the Left may have voted for Gandhi. “Even when I tell people that nothing much has happened in Amethi, Rahul’s sitting constituency in UP, and show instances of underdevelopment there, they are not convinced ,” adds Thomas.

Her husband Hari V Menon agrees that there is a belief among people that Gandhi can make a difference by improving tourism, infrastructure and medical facilities in Wayanad. Menon, who works in the nearby town of Kalpetta and is a critic of Congress policies, adds, “If he wins both Amethi and Wayanad, people expect Rahul to keep Wayanad. They want Wayanad to be the constituency of India’s future Prime Minister.”

He points out that Gandhi’s presence has woken up the Left Democratic Front, which stepped up its campaign after the Congress president’s name was announced. The Left, in turn, hopes Gandhi will choose his long-time UP seat over Wayanad if he wins both. The Left believes it can win a by-election by making Gandhi’s decision to surrender Wayanad appear like an act of betrayal.

Voters BLinkspoke to, however, consider his candidature an opportunity for the party to set things right. “People see Rahul’s entry as a panacea to many of the maladies Wayanad has been suffering from over the years and, to prove them right, he must keep the constituency,” says Rajesh, a Dalit taxi driver from Sultan Bathery. “I generally support the Left, but this time I back Rahul. I am not satisfied with the way the state government handled the distribution of post-flood relief. My family is yet to get our compensation,” he says.

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Wayanad, a picture-postcard land of mountains and passes in the Western Ghats, also has tribal communities accounting for over 18 per cent of the population. The district links Kerala to its neighbours, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and is known for the Muthanga tribal agitation for land in the 1990s spearheaded by activists such as CK Janu, who later allied with the BJP, and M Geethanandan. Gandhi’s candidature is viewed with curiosity by the tribal communities and is read as a change in the Congress’s traditional stances. Though Janu now supports the Left, other local tribal leaders back Gandhi. They believe his presence could help highlight the plight of the tribal communities neglected by consecutive state governments.

“Wayanad lacks good healthcare and transport facilities. People expect Rahul’s presence to make a difference,” says KM Shaji, a used-vehicles dealer from the district.

Wayanad can be the quintessential Gandhi constituency, says a senior journalist who belongs to the region. The Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency includes the Kalpetta, Sultan Bathery and Mananthavady assembly seats in Wayanad, Thiruvambady in Kozhikode and Nilambur, Wandoor and Eranad in Muslim-dominated Malappuram district.

“It is quite unlike Amethi. Look at the demographics: the Wayanad seat has a significant share of Christians, Muslims and Hindus. It is truly secular and the constituency has always shunned communal politics,” he says.

But not many think the Wayanad moment in Congress’s history is epochal. “Rahul’s entry only shows the Congress is confused about its political strategy, especially after having been beaten by the BJP in the game of communal politics in places such as UP,” argues Rahul Padman, a freelance writer from Wayanad.

Wayanad may, however, give Gandhi the opportunity to tell voters in the South of his priorities. The constituency comprises people — peasants, tribal communities, minorities — whose causes he espouses, points out Valappil. “Amethi does not offer this. Hence, chances are he will retain Wayanad.”

If that happens, it will herald a new Congress, one that aligns with “progressive” elements and focusses on “real” issues such as the farm crisis and unemployment, rather than “rhetorical” ones such as nationalism, says Joseph. And no one should really be surprised if Gandhi offers Amethi to Vadra and makes Wayanad his base, he adds.

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Published on April 26, 2019
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